McPherson, Aimee Semple
Aimee Semple McPherson
Born October 9, 1890 (Ingersoll, Canada)
Died September 27, 1944 (Oakland, California)
Evangelist and church founder
"I am not the healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only a little office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’"
The Roaring Twenties was a decade of major changes in the United States. A population shift had occurred, with more people now living in urban than rural areas. Amazing technological advances like automobiles, airplanes, and electrical appliances had brought convenience and a faster pace to daily life. These changes were exciting to some people, but others found them troubling and unsettling. Some turned to traditional religious belief for reassurance, leading to a surge in the popularity of evangelistic religious leaders (those who seek to convert others to their own faith). The most famous of these was Aimee Semple McPherson, a dynamic woman who attracted thousands of followers with her dramatic preaching and comforting message of salvation. At a time when few women took prominent roles in organized religion, McPherson founded her own church and overcame controversy to attract thousands of devoted followers.
A dynamic young religious leader
Aimee Semple McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in Ontario, Canada. The daughter of farmer James Morgan Kennedy and Minnie Kennedy, a devotee of
the Salvation Army (a religious organization committed to helping the needy), McPherson was not a strong believer in Christianity until she was seventeen. That year, she attended a tent revival (a religious gathering held outdoors, under a tent roof) led by a Pentecostal minister. The Pentecostal religion features fundamentalist beliefs, including a literal interpretation of events in the Bible, as well as such practices as faith healing (by which illnesses and disabilities are cured through a strong belief in God) and so-called "speaking in tongues," when a person enters a kind of trance and begins speaking unknown words presumed to be from some biblical language.
In the summer of 1908 McPherson married the minister who had converted her, Robert Semple, and went out on the revivalist circuit with him. She soon found that she too had a gift for preaching and enjoyed being able to save souls (in other words, win them over to the Christian faith). In 1910 the couple traveled to China to do missionary work, which involved trying to persuade the local people there to become Christians. McPherson gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Star Semple, one month after her husband's death. Penniless, she returned to the United States and joined her mother in revivalist activities.
McPherson married Harold S. McPherson, a native of Rhode Island and a grocery clerk, in 1912, and their son Rolf Kennedy McPherson was born the next year. Soon McPherson found the call to preach too strong to resist, and she headed back on the road, leaving her husband behind. With her mother by her side, McPherson traveled up and down the East Coast in a car painted with religious slogans, such as "Jesus Is Coming—Get Ready" and "Where Will You Spend Eternity?"
McPherson gradually developed a flamboyant speaking style that was very effective, helping her to draw crowds as large as fifteen thousand in some cities. Her physical attractiveness and ability to persuade both seemed to add to her appeal. She had already attracted a considerable following when, in 1918, she and her mother traveled to Los Angeles, California. Here McPherson established her ministry, which she named the Four Square Gospel Church. She seemed perfectly suited to this city, in which so many lost-feeling residents had recently arrived from other places, and where her show-business techniques were readily accepted.
The Four Square Gospel Church
By 1923 McPherson was able to construct the huge, domed Angelus Temple, which seated more than five thousand worshippers and which was topped with an illuminated, rotating cross. Some came just to see and hear this colorful, increasingly
Billy Sunday: An Influential Evangelist
The stage for the dramatic, crowd-pleasing kind of preaching that made Aimee Semple McPherson popular was set by another revivalist preacher in the decade leading up to the Roaring Twenties. Billy Sunday won over converts in the 1910s with an entertaining style that several generations of fundamentalist leaders would imitate.
Born in Ames, Iowa, in 1862, William "Billy" Sunday was the son of a Civil War soldier who died a month after his birth. After a childhood marked by poverty, stays in orphanages, and little schooling, Sunday was on his own at the age of fourteen. He traveled around the state, supporting himself with odd jobs. Always interested in sports, Sunday started playing baseball with the local team in Marshalltown, Iowa, before being offered a position on a professional team, the Chicago Whitestockings. Sunday joined the team in 1883. After he converted to fundamentalist Christianity, Sunday began to bring his religious beliefs to the ballpark, urging his fellow players to give up drinking and other sinful practices.
In 1891 Sunday quit baseball to work for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Two years later he became an assistant to a Presbyterian evangelist named John Wilbur Chapman. Sunday's job was to set up the revival meetings at which Chapman preached. Sunday did some preaching himself, and soon after heading a revival that Chapman was unable to lead, set out on his own career as an evangelist preacher.
Ordained by the Chicago Presbytery in 1903, Sunday traveled around the country, speaking to larger and larger crowds. He became increasingly famous for his original, flamboyant style, which featured folksy, colorful language, often laced with baseball imagery and accompanied by athletic gestures. He was known for encouraging people at his services to "hit the sawdust trail," which meant that they should walk up the sawdust-covered aisle of his tabernacle (usually a temporary wooden structure) and accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Sunday also incorporated music into his services, which made them even more appealing.
The peak of Sunday's popularity came around the time of World War I. At massive rallies, he urged the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. He also denounced the liberal elements of society and mixed religious and patriotic terminology in support of the entrance of the United States into the war. Sunday's popularity declined in the 1920s, partly due to a scandal involving the large amounts of money he had made through his evangelist work. By the time of his death in 1935 he had led more than thirty campaigns and was said to have converted as many as three hundred thousand people to Christianity.
famous character, but many found themselves converted to her message and church. The foundation of the church included beliefs in Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity and in faith healing. In fact, the Temple housed a permanent display of canes, crutches, and braces that had been discarded by those McPherson was believed to have cured. According to Nathan Miller's New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America, however, McPherson modestly insisted that she was "not the healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only a little office girl who opens the door and says, 'Come in."'
McPherson employed music, vividly told Bible stories, costumes, and dramatic performances to deliver her message. For example, to illustrate the cost of breaking God's laws, she once rode down the Temple's front aisle on a motorcycle, dressed in a police officer's uniform.
Meanwhile, Minnie Kennedy continued her shrewd management of the business side of her daughter's ministry. In 1924 McPherson opened the first full-time religious radio station in the country, which greatly extended her reach. She also established the Lighthouse of International Evangelism, a Bible college and training school for ministry workers.
Although she was a talented publicist and powerful persuader, McPherson was also a stubborn and impulsive person. She ignored rumors that she was involved with her radio station's former engineer, a married Australian named Kenneth Ormiston. Then came an event that mystified the nation and made McPherson an even more controversial figure.
A mysterious "kidnapping"
In May 1926 McPherson went to a Los Angeles beach park to enjoy one of her favorite pastimes, swimming in the Pacific Ocean. She entered the surf and turned to wave to her secretary, who was waiting on the beach, but she never returned. A massive search was organized, with not only police, but also church members scouring the beaches for McPherson's body (two of the searchers were so upset by her disappearance that they killed themselves). It was assumed that she had drowned.
Intensive press coverage helped to sensationalize what was already a bizarre story. Then new rumors began to circulate: McPherson had been seen in the resort town of Carmel, located farther north on the Pacific coast, in the company of a man thought to be Ormiston (whose wife had by now left the country, claiming that her husband had had an affair with McPherson). Six weeks after McPherson's disappearance, her mother received a letter demanding five hundred thousand dollars in exchange for the evangelist's safe return. Otherwise, the note threatened, she would be sold into slavery in Mexico.
Just a few days later, though, McPherson called her mother from Arizona. She had escaped from her captors, she said, after being tied up in a Mexican shack. McPherson claimed to have staggered across the desert before she was finally found. On her return to Los Angeles, McPherson was greeted by thousands of ecstatic admirers. The police, however, were less convinced that her story was true. Many residents of Carmel reported that a couple resembling McPherson and Ormiston had stayed in a hotel there for ten days. McPherson was unable to produce any evidence to back up her story, and she was forced to testify before a grand jury on charges that included conspiracy to manufacture evidence.
Eventually, the charges were dropped (some believed that McPherson had paid someone a bribe to achieve this outcome), and meanwhile McPherson had become even more famous. She took advantage of her notoriety by setting out on a revival tour of the East Coast. She was mobbed by crowds anxious to see the celebrity that they had heard so much about. McPherson started dressing more stylishly and even cut her luxurious, long red hair in a short bob. The press followed her activities eagerly, especially when she appeared in a New York City nightclub managed by a notoriously shady woman named Tex Guinan. The club's customers cheered McPherson, who invited them to come and hear her preach.
Whenever journalists or anyone else asked McPherson about her kidnapping ordeal, she repeated the same sequence of events, always insisting "That's my story and I'm sticking with it." She continued her evangelistic work, even traveling to England, France, the Middle East, and Asia. Returning to Los Angeles, she continued to run her ministry. During the Great Depression (the period of economic downturn and suffering that lasted from the 1929 stock market crash until
approximately 1939), McPherson's church provided steady assistance to the needy, in the form of food and clothing.
As the 1930s continued, McPherson was plagued by a number of problems. She married David L. Hutton, a young choir member, in 1931, but they were divorced three years later. She was engaged in public disputes with several family members, and a total of fifty-five lawsuits were filed against her for various reasons. In addition, her church experienced some financial problems. These began to ease, however, in the 1940s, as membership was again increasing. In 1944 McPherson died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Leadership of her church, which was still in existence at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with more than seven hundred branches, fell to her son.
For More Information
Blumhofer, Edith. Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
Epstein, Daniel M. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Harcourt, 1993.
Thomas, Lately. Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.
Aimee Semple McPherson Resource Center. Available online at http://members.aol.com/xbcampbell/asm/indexasm.htm. Accessed on June 28, 2005.
McPherson, Aimee Semple
Aimee Semple Mc Pherson
Born: October 9, 1890
Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada
Died: September 27, 1944
Canadian-born American evangelist
Aimee Semple McPherson, American evangelist (one who preaches Christianity), symbolized important traits of American popular religion in the 1920s and 1930s. She was one of the first female evangelists, the first divorced evangelist, and the founder of the Foursquare Gospel church.
Aimee Kennedy was born on October 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Her father, James Morgan Kennedy, was a struggling farmer. Her mother, Mildred "Minnie" Pearce was a former member of the Salvation Army (1865; founded by William Booth [1829–1912] as a religious organization with military structure for the purpose of bettering life for the poor and evangelizing the world). Soon after Aimee's birth, her mother took her to the Salvation Army and dedicated her to God's service. Aimee's training was particularly geared toward religious work.
When Aimee was in high school, she began to question her religious beliefs. At the age of seventeen she went to a religious meeting and experienced Pentecostal (a branch of Christianity that supports individual religious experience and evangelism) conversion under the guidance of Scottish evangelist Robert Semple. In 1908 she married Semple and followed him to China as a missionary (one who travels to spread religious teachings). He died soon after arriving in China, leaving her pregnant and penniless. After the birth of Roberta Star, she returned home and continued her Pentecostal work. She also worked with her mother for the Salvation Army.
Semple married a New York grocery clerk, Harold S. McPherson, in 1913; this marriage ended in divorce five years later. Thereafter she set out as an untrained lay evangelist to preach a Pentecostal-type of revivalism (a religious practice focused on restoring the spirit of God into people) to the people of Ontario, Canada.
Physically attractive and possessing a dynamic personality and the instinctive ability to charm crowds, Aimee Semple McPherson gradually perfected her skills. By this time professional revivalism had achieved a distinctive style and organization; McPherson was in the forefront. Though she initially lived an almost hand-to-mouth existence, following the route of traveling evangelists from Maine to Florida, success meant a move to larger cities in America, England, and Australia. In the cities audiences were often immense, with ten thousand to fifteen thousand people deliriously applauding her. "Speaking in tongues" and successful efforts at faith healing—both practiced by Pentecostal churches—were a part of her ministry. (Pentecostals believe that the sounds made by people while "speaking in tongues" are biblical messages that can be interpreted by another worshipper.)
Her own temple
By 1920 McPherson was permanently established in Los Angeles, California. In 1923 she and her followers dedicated Angelus Temple. She called her new breed of Christian church the Foursquare Gospel, a complete gospel for body, soul, spirit, and eternity. Seating over five thousand people, this served as her center of activity. Backed by a sharp business manager (her mother), McPherson developed a large group of devoted followers. She also became a community figure in tune with the publicity-oriented life of Los Angeles, the film capital of the world.
A popular evangelist, McPherson thrived on publicity and sensationalism (causing an intense and/or unnatural emotional reaction). The most astounding incident occurred in 1926, when McPherson, believed to have drowned in the Pacific Ocean, "miraculously" reappeared in the Mexican desert. Some challenged her tale of kidnapping and mistreatment, claiming she had been in hiding with one of her male followers. The resulting court battle attracted national attention.
McPherson continued her unconventional ways by engaging in a slander suit (when a person is taken to court for telling lies that damaged another's reputation) with her daughter, publicly quarreling with her mother, and carrying on well-publicized vendettas (intense and lengthy fights) with other religious groups. Aimee Semple McPherson died of a sleeping pill overdose in Oakland, California, on September 27, 1944. The Foursquare Gospel church continues to thrive in America today.
For More Information
Austin, Alvyn. Aimee Semple McPherson. Don Mills, ON: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1980.
Bahr, Robert. Least of All Saints: The Story of Aimee Semple McPherson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979.
Blumhofer, Edith L. Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1993.
Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1993.
Thomas, Lately. Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Morrow, 1970.
McPherson, Aimee Semple
McPHERSON, Aimee Semple
Born 9 October 1890, Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada; died 27 September 1944, Oakland, California
Daughter of James M. and Mildred Pearce Kennedy; married Robert Semple, 1908; Harold S. McPherson, 1912; David L. Hutton, 1931; children: one son, one daughter
The only child of a Methodist farmer and a Salvation Army mother, Aimee Semple McPherson was dedicated to God's work in the Salvation Army at age six weeks. At seventeen, she was converted to the Pentecostal mission by Robert Semple, whom she then married. Ordained as a preacher of the Full Gospel Assembly in 1909, McPherson conducted revivals in small towns in the U.S., and then went to China in 1910, where her husband Robert died. A daughter, Roberta, was born a month later. Returning to the U.S., McPherson worked in missions with her mother in New York City. A second marriage to Harold Stewart McPherson, a bookkeeper, produced a son. Wishing to resume her revival work full time, McPherson left McPherson, and with her mother and two children began her career as evangelist in 1915.
In a Pentecostal mission in Ontario, McPherson conducted tent meetings characterized by faith healing, crisis conversions, speaking in tongues, premillennialism, and literal interpretation of the Bible. In 1916 McPherson began her itinerant career, holding tent revivals from Maine to Florida, accompanied by her astute, business-minded widowed mother. They drove to Los Angeles in their "Gospel Car" in 1918, and founded the Angelus Temple in 1923. The funds were raised by her devout lower-middle-class followers, for whom McPherson formed a new sect, the Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
From her temple, McPherson launched a wide variety of highly successful religious and social welfare programs. These included a monthly newsletter, Bridal Call, and a weekly, Bridal Call Four-Square; a church radio station; a commissary to distribute food and clothing to the poor; a telephone counseling service; prayer vigils; and a Bible College. By 1944, when McPherson died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates, membership in the 400 branches of her church was over 22,000, and her Bible College had graduated 3,000. Since then, the sect has continued to thrive, with 2,700 churches all over the world.
McPherson wrote all her own sermons, many songs, most of Bridal Call, and two autobiographies besides preaching the scheduled 10 sermons a week and going on a number of cross-country tours. McPherson's writings, though not deep, were based on a solid knowledge of the Bible and a sure understanding of her uneducated audience. The most famous of her cliché-ridden but inspired sermons is "The Rose of Sharon," delivered in 1931. Dressed in her trademark clerical garb of white dress and blue satin cape, and cradling a bunch of red roses, McPherson compared the short life of the rose to that of humans. Then, tearing off a rose petal, she made her point: while the petal dies, the attar, if extracted, is a fragrance everlasting. Rose attar, like the blood of Jesus, is a symbol of eternal hope, preserving the soul when the body is sacrificed.
McPherson's autobiographies are more imaginative than factual, intended to glorify her early life and omitting baser details. Her first book, This Is That (1919), describes her conversion and mission in a sentimental but vivid style. The second, In the Service of the King (1927), probably ghostwritten, attempts to explain her version of her presumed kidnapping and disappearance in 1926. A few of her sermons were recorded, preserving her compelling voice and simplistic metaphors in such messages as "Three Little Pigs," "From Milkpail to Pulpit," and "The Scarlet Thread." A genius at managing publicity, McPherson received almost daily press coverage throughout her career.
A charismatic evangelist and a beautiful, youthful-looking woman to the end of her life, McPherson offered solace and material comfort to all. During the Depression, her commissary predated even President Roosevelt's welfare programs. Her always optimistic sermons gave hope to the neglected working-class poor, people who craved some color and symbol of affection. As a symbol of fundamentalism in America, McPherson is said to have inspired Sinclair Lewis's antievangelist novel, Elmer Gantry.
The Holy Spirit (1931). Give Me My Own Go (1936). The Story of My Life (1936, 1973). Fire from on High (1969). The Foursquare Gospel (1969). Lost and Restored: The Dispensation of the Holy Spirit from the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ to His Coming Dispensation (1976). Life Story of Aimee Semple McPherson (1979). The Personal Testimony of Aimee Semple McPherson (1984). Centennial Edition of Aimee Semple McPherson's Original Writings: Lost and Restored Sermons and Her Personal Testimony (1990).
Aimee Semple McPherson's Kidnapping (1965). Austin, A., Aimee Semple McPherson (1980). Blumhofer, E. W., Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody's Sister (1993). Cox, R. L., The Verdict Is In (1983). Dalton-Rheaume, F., Aimee Semple McPherson: The Forgotten Evangelist (thesis 1996). Epstein, D. M., Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson (1993). Goben, J. D., "Aimee"—the Gospel Gold-Digger (1932). Grindstaff, R. A., The Institutionalization of Aimee Semple McPherson: A Study in the Rhetoric of Social Intervention (dissertation 1990). Hood, J. L., The New Old-Time Religion: Aimee Semple McPherson and the Original Electric Church (1981). Leighton, I., ed., The Aspirin Age (1949). Mavity, N. B., Sister Aimee (1931). McBride, S., "Inspirational Creativity in the Foursquare Church" (thesis 1996). Thomas, L., Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (1970). Thomas, L., The Vanishing Evangelist: The Aimee Semple McPherson Kidnapping Affair (1959).
Dictionary of Religious Biography (1977). NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Book World (March 1993). Christian History (1998). Journal of American History (1995). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (June 1994).
Mcpherson, Aimee Semple
MCPHERSON, AIMEE SEMPLE
MCPHERSON, AIMEE SEMPLE (1890–1944), American Pentecostal evangelist and divine healer. McPherson was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on a farm near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Raised in the Salvation Army, she was converted to Pentecostalism through the preaching of Robert James Semple, whom she married in 1908 and accompanied to China, where they served as missionaries until Semple's death in 1910. Two subsequent marriages ended in divorce.
In 1917, McPherson embarked upon an evangelistic and divine healing career in the United States that quickly brought her national and international fame. In 1923, she settled in Los Angeles and built the five-thousand-seat Angelus Temple, a center of welfare services, and in 1927, she incorporated her large network of churches as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. She also founded a ministerial institute, later named the Lighthouse of International Foursquare Evangelism (LIFE) Bible College.
McPherson's turbulent personal life, involving her alleged kidnapping, rumors of romantic liaisons, dozens of lawsuits, conflicts with her mother and daughter, and divorce from her third husband, brought her much notoriety. Nevertheless, she retained the unswerving loyalty of her followers. Her denomination grew to four hundred congregations in the United States, two hundred mission stations abroad, and a worldwide total of twenty-two thousand members at the time of her death.
McPherson's Foursquare Gospel was a restatement of standard Pentecostal doctrine focusing on Jesus Christ as savior, baptizer in the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming king. She wrote several autobiographical books, published numerous pamphlets and articles, edited two periodicals, and composed some eighty hymns and five sacred operas. In her preaching she avoided condemnation and appeals to fear, emphasizing instead the love and joy that religion provides.
McPherson was unique in her evangelistic style. Her mastery at promoting herself and her work through the media made "Sister Aimee," or simply "Aimee," a household name. She was a pioneer in religious broadcasting, establishing the first church-owned radio station (KFSG) in the United States in 1924. She adapted the techniques of vaudeville and the theater to evangelism, using costumes, lighting, scenery and props, orchestras and brass bands, huge choirs, and dramatizations to achieve an unforgettable emotional impact on her audiences. Endowed with enormous energy and optimism, a powerful, melodious voice, rare acting ability, and a physical attractiveness heightened by an aura of sexuality, she was acclaimed a spellbinding platform personality by the millions to whom she preached.
Bahr, Robert. Least of All Saints: The Story of Aimee Semple McPherson. Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1979. A popular, fictionalized account that captures much of the whirlwind spirit of McPherson's career and temperament.
McLoughlin, William G. "Aimee Semple McPherson: Your Sister in the King's Glad Service." Journal of Popular Culture 1 (Winter 1968): 193–217. An analysis and evaluation that places McPherson's life and career in their cultural context, by an eminent historian of American religion.
McPherson, Aimee Semple. This Is That: Personal Experiences, Sermons, and Writings. Los Angeles, 1923. A reconstruction of McPherson's early years as she wanted others to see them, and a collection of sermons and tracts that reveal her public message.
McWilliams, Carey. "Aimee Semple McPherson: 'Sunlight in My Soul.'" In The Aspirin Age, 1919–1941, edited by Isabel Leighton, pp. 50–80. Los Angeles, 1949. A sympathetic interpretation of McPherson's life that reveals the tragic element behind the radiant facade.
Robert Mapes Anderson (1987)
Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), American evangelist, symbolized important attributes of American popular religion in the 1920s and 1930s.
Aimee Kennedy was born on Oct. 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada. Her father was a struggling farmer, her mother a former member of the Salvation Army. Aimee remained a nonbeliever until, at the age of 17, she experienced conversion under the guidance of Scottish evangelist Robert Semple. In 1908 she married him and followed him to China as a missionary. He died soon after arriving in China, leaving her penniless and with a month-old daughter. Returning home, Semple married a grocery clerk, Harold S. McPherson, in 1913; this marriage ended in divorce five years later. Thereafter she set out as an untrained lay evangelist to preach a Pentecostal-type of revivalism to the people of Ontario.
Physically attractive and possessed of a dynamic personality and instinctive ability to sway crowds, Aimee Semple McPherson gradually perfected her skills. By this time professional revivalism had achieved a distinctive style and organization; McPherson illustrated the newer tendencies. Though she initially lived an almost hand-to-mouth existence following the route of itinerant evangelists from Maine to Florida, success meant a move into larger cities in America, England, and Australia. In the cities audiences were often immense, with 10,000 to 15,000 partisans deliriously applauding her. McPherson's preaching also identified her with the "fringe" sects of American Protestantism that were especially influential among the masses in America's newly emerging urban centers. "Speaking with tongues" and successful efforts at faith healing—both practiced by the Pentecostal churches—were a part of her performance.
By 1920 McPherson was permanently established in Los Angeles. In 1923 she and her followers dedicated Angelus Temple. Seating over 5,000 people, this served as her center of activity. Backed by a shrewd business manager (her mother), the evangelist organized a private cult of devoted followers. She also became a public figure in tune with the garish, publicity-oriented life of the film capital of the world.
As a popular evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson symbolized the vulgarization that occurred when grass-roots religion fused uncritically with secular mass culture. Popular evangelists always ran the risk of identifying their personal concerns too much with the nonreligious aspects of culture. This tendency was strikingly illustrated by McPherson. She thrived on publicity and sensationalism. The most astounding incident occurred in 1926, when McPherson, believed to have drowned in the Pacific Ocean, "miraculously" reappeared in the Mexican desert. Her tale of kidnaping and mistreatment was challenged by some who claimed she had been in hiding with one of her male followers. The ensuing court battle attracted national attention.
McPherson continued her unconventional ways until her death in Oakland, Calif., on Sept. 27, 1944. She engaged in a slander suit with her daughter, publicly quarreled with her mother, and carried on well-publicized vendettas with other religious groups.
Aimee Semple McPherson's own reminiscence, The Story of My Life (1951), is too romanticized and sketchy to be of much value. A biographical study is Lately Thomas, Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (1970). One account dealing principally with the celebrated "kidnaping incident" of 1926 is Thomas's The Vanishing Evangelist (1959). An older though valuable study is Nancy Mavity, Sister Aimee (1931). □
McPherson, Aimee Semple
MCPHERSON, AIMEE SEMPLE
American evangelist and founder of the International Church of the foursquare gospel; b. Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, Oct. 9, 1890; d. Oakland, CA, Sept. 27, 1944. As a girl of 17, Aimee Kennedy experienced a religious conversion at a revival conducted by Robert Semple. She later married Semple, and the couple worked as missionaries in Hong Kong until his death. Mrs. Semple returned to the United States in 1911 with her infant daughter and began her preaching career. She married Harold McPherson, a grocer in Florida, but the marriage did not last. "Sister" McPherson settled in Los Angeles, CA in 1918 and built a 5,300-seat auditorium called Angelus Temple. Her flamboyant preaching attracted thousands of followers and considerable newspaper publicity. She founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927 and established a radio station and a bible college to advocate her fundamentalist, adventist, and pentecostal theology. A third marriage in 1931 to a singer in her temple choir lasted four months. After her death, her son Rolf assumed leadership of the denomination.
Bibliography: w. g. mcloughlin, Modern Revivalism (New York 1959).
[w. j. whalen]